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“Keep up, Andrea,” Dad cranes his neck over his right shoulder peering down at me as if I am a three legged goat with a broken foot.
“I am – why can’t you see that,” I shout back, thinking what a joy this hike is. Despite the biting April air, my nylon athletic shirt clings to my saturated skin. The smell of sweat curls out from underneath my jacket. Dad turns his tan face away from mine. Cold wind collects under his NYPD baseball cap’s brim and tugs it upward. He forces it back down on his salt-and-pepper crew cut hair before it can be carried away.
“Explain to me again why we’re doing this?” I screech upward.
He continues to hike up the rocky trail cutting up the mountainside, ignoring me. His bulging pack bounces up and down as his mud caked boots pound over the trail.
“Oh, that’s right. It’s supposed to be a bonding experience. Like a family dental visit,” I murmur. The sun drifts low in the sky, crossing behind the mountain’s peak. A shadow spills onto us. Dad’s girlfriend, Melanie, the health freak, struts ahead of him.
“A weekend hike never killed anyone,” I hear Melanie’s nasally high-pitched voice speak, which feels like needles being shoved into my ear canal.
“If I’m around you any longer, I hope it does,” I mumble.
“Andrea, let’s go,” Dad calls again, not looking back this time.
“John, maybe I should talk to her,” she squeaks.
“Don’t feel the need to grace me with your presence,” I stare at my feet.
The crunch of her boots swells in the air until, finally, she has fallen back from Dad to join me.
I tuck my auburn hair behind one ear and force my clumsy feet through mud. Trees line the trail and clumps of dirty snow banks dribble onto our path.
“Maybe if you tried, you could move faster. Could you do that for me?” she asks, fluttering her mushy, baby-food green eyes. Her cheerleader on steroids act may have fooled my dad but I could tell Melanie’s as fake as her color-in-a-box blonde hair.
“Maybe if you tried, you could be less annoying. Could you do that for me?” I grit through my teeth and adjust the backpack straps cutting into my fleshy shoulders.
She squeezes out a tight laugh,
“Could you try harder?” and polishes it off with a smirk. I clear my throat.
“Hey, I’m a hard worker when it comes to the people I care about,” I grin. She cocks her head and forces her smile wider. I continue, “I don’t feel like working hard right now.”
Her expression disintegrates into a frown.
“You know,” she lowers her voice, now making it audible to humans as well as dogs, “if you tried my juice cleanses, this hike would be a lot more manageable for you. They’re vegan.” She flashes a smile again.
“I don’t know why, but only drinking green tofu paste for a week doesn’t sound as appealing as eating real food,” I scoff.
She lets out a petite cough.
“Well,” she sighs, “It also helps with weight loss. You should try it.”
I stop in my tracks. She bounces up the trail.
“Are you coming, sweetie?” She calls back in her squeaky voice again. She catches up with Dad.
“Dad, I’m tired.” I yell. His shoulders drop. He pauses and turns back to face me.
I relieve my shoulders of the backpack and dump it at my feet.
“Pick up your bag and let’s go.” His voice slices the air. My eyes shift over to Melanie. She looks down at me smugly.
“Andrea, you should look at your father when he talks to you,” she squeals. I continue to watch Melanie as she examines her nails.
A fly zips around her. She swats at it, making a face. The corners of my mouth tug upward.
“Andrea. Pick up your bag and come,” my father yells.
This time, my head snaps in his direction.
“I don’t want to,” I moan. He grumbles something under his breathe and grudges towards me.
“When did you stop listening to me?” his voice drops in volume, but escalates in harshness.
“The second you started dating her,” I fling my words against him with a tone to match. The vein pulses on the side of his neck.
“Why are you being melodramatic? You’re embarrassing yourself,” then adds “and me.”
I cross my arms. “I don’t care.”
“Fine.” He adjusts his hat, “Pout like a brat? You get treated like one.”
His blue eyes blaze in irritation. I glare back with the same eyes. He clears his throat, turns his back towards me, and begins covering the distance between Melanie and I.
I uncross my arms. “Where are you going?”
Silence. He reaches her, mutters something, and they continue hiking.
A heavy sigh rushes out of me. My eyes scan the area, looking for somewhere dry to sit. A boulder rests a few yards off the trail between scrawny pine trees, surrounded by a trickling snow bank. I force my aching feet in its direction.
I collapse on the rock, prop my elbows on my thick thighs and rest my head in my hands.
If it were up to me, I would be home, curled up in a blanket on the couch, with a root beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other, in a home with two parents who love each other.
That’s not going to happen so you might as well stop pretending. A whiny voice shoves its way into my head.
“Well maybe it could,” I pull my face away from my hands and snap at no one. Anxiety grips my stomach. I meander to my feet and trudge around the snow bank.
“Calm down. Just one more day of this and then you can go home. You’re fine,” I breathe. Great. I’m talking to myself. The image of Melanie’ green eyes pops into my head.
“I guess there is more than just one way to be crazy,” as my lunch churns in my stomach at the thought of her pea green kale juice drinks.
With the last word, I kick at the snow bank by the boulder. My foot jams into something and a sickly crackkk snaps its way out of the snow. I yank my foot out. What the heck was that?
I crouch down to examine the bank. A sewage smell crawls out of the snow. I cough but peer into the hole. There’s piece of black leather inside.
I slip my hand into my jacket’s pocket and pull out my gloves. I tug them on and begin to scrape away the snow. Slowly, the rest of the leather object comes into view. It buds out of the dirty snow. My fingers fumble around a hard corner—
Oh it’s a book, I think. I grasp it with one hand and yank. It doesn’t move. Must be caught on something. My other hand grabs an edge and I give it one more heave. The rest of the book sprouts from the snow.
I shriek, let go of it, and tumble back on to the ground. Clutched to the other end of the book is a decaying hand. Attached to that, is the rest of the body.
I haul myself up from the dirt, then drop again, this time landing on my hands and knees. Nausea cracks me over the head and my body shutters. A vile taste bubbles up in my throat. I close my eyes and swallow, the acid burning my esophagus. Just then, I realize something is under my right hand. My eyes open. It’s the book, which could fit in one palm. I ease back onto my haunches and watch it as if it might jump to life and attack me. My gaze flickers to the body. It’s lower half is buried by the snow. The visible clothes are tattered, soaked and faded. The stench of rotting meat saturates the air. New sweat glides down my spine.
I glance down at the body.
Who are you? How did you die?
My gaze goes to the book.
Why are you holding this?
I kneel down and examine the rigid hand clutching the leather bound book. My eyes skim the ground around me and I spot a stick. I snatch it up and pry it between the black rotting fingers and twist. Pop! The stick snaps and maybe a finger or two.
I screech and recoil. Gingerly, I reach out pick up the now freed book and stand up.
I examine the unmarked front and back cover.
Oh, it’s a journal.
Put it back.
“Where are you?” Dad yells behind me.
Panic crawls over my skin. I stuff the book into my inside jacket pocket and glance over my shoulder to see him and Melanie standing on the path several yards away.
“Over here,” I call.
As they near closer, I point at the body. Dad’s expression hardens and he pauses.
“Don’t touch the body,” he commands.
I clumsily stumble out of his way as he drops his pack and barrels past me. Melanie approach cautiously.
Her hand shoots up to cover her mouth.
“Andrea,” someone says my name.
I don’t move but drop my gaze to my feet.
“Andrea.” It’s Dad. “Did you find the body like this?”
My eyes flick up at him.
“Uhh…n-no.” I clear my throat. “I just um, saw something in the bank and s-so I tried to pull it out and…”
“Explains the position of the body,” Dad mumbles. “Looks to be female. I’ll call the local police. You two stay there. Contaminating the crime scene is illegal.” He informs.
The book burns against my side.
You need to give it back, I think.
No, you can’t. You’ll get in trouble. And you have two people here as witnesses. Don’t do anything. Don’t even look at the body.
I swallow before my lunch has a revisit. Tears sting my eyes. A lump clogs my throat.
Dad withdraws from the body and comes close to me.
“Are you alright?” his words seem to be a statement instead.
“l’ll call the police.” He whips out his cell phone and talks to the local sheriff’s department. After he hangs up he announces, “Melanie, I need to take Andrea home after we give a statement. I’ll drop you off first and go home.”
“Well what about the rest of the weekend? It’s all ruined,” she pouts.
“I need to take care of my daughter,” Dad retorts.
I can’t believe I found a body—then stole from it.
The fact that the sight of a body doesn’t even rub him the wrong way, rubs me the wrong way.
He’s a cop. He’s used to bodies. But with every death, he seems less alive.
It’s all right. I’m emotional enough for the two of us.
The long car ride back to New York City fills only with an uncomfortable silence. When we would drive over a bump in the road, the book would jostle around in my jacket, reminding me of what I had done.
You may have taken the only piece of memory left behind by that poor girl.
But it’s too late to return it.
No, it’s not too late for anything.
We drop off Melanie and it’s close to mid-night when we reach our apartment back in the city. The smell of cigarettes and roasted peanuts still can’t cleanse my nostrils of the smell of a body.
Dad parks in front of our brick building, then we lug our gear up two flights of stairs to our apartment.
At the landing, he fishes out the keys, unlocks the door, and we enter in silence.
“I need a shower,” Dad finally mutters as he flicks on the light switch. The white floor lamp illuminates in the far corner.
Dad slips into the hall on our right. I trudge forward and disintegrate onto the couch in the TV room, pulling my legs up under me. The water running in the back room releases a sigh from me. I unzip my jacket and retrieve the book. It’s soft and still damp to the touch. I open to the first page. In the center of the page is written,
Property of Theresa Sullivan
The delicate pages have dried in pale rolls like waves in an ocean. The ink is faded and in some places, smudged. I turn to the next page. It reads,
Today I’m going out for a hike without my phone to get away from everything and everyone. At the ski shop in town, I bought a pair of snow shoes. Hopefully I can be inspired by nature to write.. I should be back in time for a late dinner.
I sigh. Nothing traumatic in there. Actually, pretty boring in fact. I flip to the next entry.
I went off the trail—what a horrible idea. As I was walking down the slope, I slipped and fell. I can’t move it.. I need to get back home. It’s starting to get dark out. I should’ve just brought my phone. I really don’t want to spend the night here but I might have to.
I blink away some tears and turn to the next page. There’s only one more entry left.
Last night it snowed and it was freezing. It must be below zero. My fingers are blue and I can’t feel them. I spent the past two days trying to get down the mountain. I’ve moved maybe 100 feet—probably less. I can’t stand up.. My stomach and throat are sore and my water bottle is empty. I’m thirsty. I tried eating some snow, but that just made me even colder. I can’t do this.
Why didn’t I tell my Mom where I was going? I love you, Mom.
No more entries.
Tears start to roll down my cheeks onto the rippled pages.
“Andrea?” Dad’s voice sounds from behind me. I shut the book and toss it next to me. I haul myself off the couch as I hear him approaching.
“I thought you would be in bed by now.” I spin around and face him.
“I-I will, I’m going.” I stutter. He’s already dressed in striped pajamas, with a cup of ice water in his right hand.
“Okay, well hurry up.”
“Wait, Dad?” I fold my arms, shift my weight from my left foot to my right, and clear my throat.
I glance down at the journal. “I need to return something tomorrow.”
He knits his eyebrows. “Uhh, okay.” He turns to leave.
“Oh and Dad?” he sighs, but faces me again.
“I’m sorry for earlier. And I love you.”
He seems startled but then just smiles.
“I love you too.”